Libya’s first unity government since the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi was sworn in on Monday in what observers of the North African nation have described as a significant turning point in the country’s politics.
The new government is led by Abdul Hamid Dbiebeh, considered to be one of the country’s wealthiest men with a reputation for being a dealmaker.
The country has been in an on-and-off state of conflict since the former leader was overthrown by Libyan rebels backed by western powers. Rather than ushering in a new democratic era, however, Gaddafi’s ousting led to a multi-layered struggle for control of the country by multiple Libyan militias and tribes, as well as international powers.
“It’s a very significant development,” Libya expert Mark Micallef told Lovin Malta about the latest developments.
Micallef is the director of the North Africa and Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, whose main focus is o smuggling and trafficking networks in Libya and the region.
Gaining the approval of both sides
By managing to secure the backing of both the House of Representatives (HOR), based in the eastern city of Tobruk, as well as that of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Micallef said that Dbiebeh has managed to pull off something which has not happened before.
Over the past years, the country has been effectively divided into two – with the GNA controlling the capital in the west, and forces loyal to military commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army dominant in the east of the country.
Haftar, who has been backed by foreign powers including Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, among others, launched an offensive to take Tripoli back in April 2019. But in January 2020, Turkey passed a one-year mandate to deploy troops to Libya, eventually succeeding in turning the tide of the conflict.
With Haftar’s forces defeated, a ceasefire was announced in October 2020 and has more or less held since.
According to Micallef, this development is partly the reason that the latest developments have been possible.
“The Government of National Accord was meant to gain the approval of the House of Representatives but never managed to, primarily because of the political climate at the time,” Micallef said.
“During the past two years, reaching a climax in 2019, Haftar – who is till this day the most significant military or political figure in the east – was pursuing his own ambitions, which would have been scuppered had the HOR approved.”
That project is now “dead in the water”, Micallef said, adding that this has created a “very particular political climate” which has favoured the developments seen in Libya in recent weeks.
The right man for the job
Another factor to be considered, Micallef said, was Dbiebeh’s “nature”.
“He wasn’t a favourite for the job and was, in a sense, quite a surprise. At the same time, he has the profile of a political dealer who understands how Libya works very well, and, who crucially, in this particular circumstance, is a non-divisive figure.
“Even though he comes from a family that supported the revolution, in the years before that he could have been criticised for his proximity to the regime.”
Micallef noted that many Gaddafi-era figures were being brought back into the fold, as the country looks to rebuild itself. In addition to having been ravaged by armed conflicts, it is currently struggling on multiple other fronts.
“There is a big problem with COVID-19, with the economy and with the provision of basic services like the distribution of electricity. There are deep structural problems that need to be addressed as a priority,” Micallef stressed.
While the incoming Prime Minister has been dealt a good hand, Micallef warned that the task at hand was not a simple one, and was fraught with challenges.
“He is a dealmaker, but this also means he will need to resist the temptation to offer too much to too many people in his search for stability. He mustn’t get carried away.”
The new government has now been tasked with preparing the country for elections in December, but Micallef sees this as more of a construct of the international community.
“I don’t think it’s feasible and I don’t think anyone in Libya expects there to be elections in December,” Micallef said, highlighting that there were many other pressing issues to be dealt with before.
Comments about Malta down to political inexperience
Earlier this year, Dbiebeh was filmed addressing Libyan dignitaries and business leaders in Tobruk during which he warned members of the international community who did not treat Libya with respect.
He singled out Malta, saying that it was not showing enough respect to Libyan passport holders and that he would only meet Prime Minister Robert Abela when proper respect was shown to the Libyan people.
Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo was quick to diffuse the situation, insisting after diplomatic talks with Dbiebeh that there was “no issue”.
This was echoed by Micallef who said that while Dbiebeh was a seasoned dealmaker, he still had much to learn about politics, especially international politics.
Asked whether the new government could lead to disruption of smuggling networks passing through Libya, Micallef said he did expect this to be the case immediately, adding however that the new government might result in a more coherent Libya which is taken more seriously by the international community and which would, as a result, need to hold its own end of any potential bargain.